Five-a-side TOTW: May 16th 2017

Picking an eleven is hard; picking just five is even harder.

The top and bottom of the Premier League has been decided! Michy Batshuayi ended the title race with his second Premier League goal of the season. At the other end of the table Hull City fell apart against Crystal Palace giving their fans a very disappointing end to a spirited survival fight. A huge win for Liverpool away to West Ham means they are now just one home victory away from a return to Champions League football. Here’s our penultimate five-a-side team of the week. We finally got Sanchez and Coutinho on the same pitch…

Goalkeeper – Lukasz Fabianski

Despite a slump during March and early April, Swansea would be comfortably in the top ten based on their results under Paul Clement. He eventually found a way to remedy their woeful defensive record and Fabianski has upped his game in recent weeks. As dreadful as Sunderland are, they were still able to test the Pole last weekend only to find he had all the answers. Swansea have confirmed their place in the Premier League for another year and Fabianski should keep his job as their number one.

The Anchor – Cesar Azpilicueta

Roll up, roll up, pick your favourite Chelsea defender. Azpilicueta has been very effective this season and a revelation at centre back. He is comfortable on the ball and wonderfully versatile. His key contribution against West Brom on Friday came in the final third when he got round the back to steer a ball into the waiting Batshuayi; a worthy TOTW call-up for one of the league’s best defenders.

The Playmaker – Philippe Coutinho

Liverpool have won ten of the twelve games where Philippe Coutinho has scored or assisted a goal. Simply put, when the Brazilian performs Liverpool usually win. They ran away with it on Sunday dispatching West Ham 4-0 at the Olympic Stadium – a result which will have a huge impact on their pursuit of the top four. The Reds have struggled away to West Ham recently and would have been glad to see the back of the Boelyn Ground. The little Brazilian seemed to benefit from the presence of a recalled Daniel Sturridge and you wonder where Liverpool would be if the two had played together on more occasions this season. If only, if only…

The Talisman – Alexis Sanchez

You can also wonder where Arsenal would be without Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean’s shown himself to be a curious character at times this season but his performances on the pitch have never wavered. My own, unpopular, opinion is that Sanchez is the best footballer in the Premier League. He certainly looked it when dragging Arsenal through back-to-back wins against Stoke (last weekend) and Sunderland (last night). His finishing is electric and he’s now just one behind Lukaku in the race for the Golden Boot. The two will share a pitch this Sunday…

The Finisher – Shinji Okazaki

Last May Leicester were celebrating a miracle. This time around they can at least applaud a stunning goal by the often overlooked Okazaki. They made a game of it against Manchester City proving they really are far too good to go down. The second half was an unpleasant watch for Pep Guardiola after the Japanese international had had fired an acrobatic volley past Claudio Bravo. He rounds off our team this week.


 

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Five-a-side TOTW: May 2nd 2017

Picking an eleven is hard; picking just five is even harder.

With ten teams keeping clean sheets this weekend, we had an opportunity to pick a more defensive five-a-side line-up. Chelsea hammered Everton, Tottenham were crowned undisputed kings of north London, and two Manchester slip ups helped Liverpool gain in the race for Champions League football.

Goalkeeper – Tom Heaton.

Big Tom is back between the sticks after helping Burnley produce their first away win of the season, simultaneously guaranteeing their safety and putting to bed any rumours that Joey Barton’s gambling offenses would rock the boat. Another clean sheet came after a busy match for the Englishman with the pick of his stops coming from Damien Delaney’s close range effort.

The Stopper – Gary Cahill

Whilst his goal against Everton was nothing more than a fortunate ricochet, six Premier League goals suggest Gary Cahill is one of the best finishers plying their trade at centre half. Another accomplished display against Everton made me wonder if I’d written off Cahill too soon. Though he’s been solid for most of the campaign, I expected Chelsea to consider replacing him in the summer. Strong end of season form suggests there is no need. He’d probably top score for this five-a-side team.

The Presence – Victor Wanyama

The slightly flashier and more refined Moussa Dembele often draws the plaudits for Tottenham but Victor Wanyama has developed into a wonderful midfielder this season. Tottenham looked better in every department against their eternal rivals Arsenal and Wanyama typified their desire. Surprisingly cool on the ball, the Kenyan came into his own in physical battles and looked exactly the sort of player Arsenal were missing. Although, in fairness, there’s about twenty seven players that Arsenal are missing.

The Acrobat – Emre Can

Emre Can is another centre midfielder who’s bridged across to a new level in recent months. The German looked a great acquisition at the start of the 2015 season but his development stalled amidst much frustration from Anfield.  His character was never in question but silly tackles and hesitance on the ball made for a difficult second season. He’s been much improved in recent months – in the absence of Jordon Henderson – and impressed again this weekend at Watford. Enough waffling… the German makes our team because of his sensational, surprising, top corner, match-winning bicycle kick.

The Runner – Pedro

Pedro’s played football for a lot of great sides and never struck me as anything more than a nuisance. Clearly skilful, the Spaniard wasn’t a roaring success when he first arrived at Stamford Bridge but has edged his way into the first team. In recent games he has looked a much better player than I ever expected. He finally seems settled under Antonio Conte and proved to be the game-changer when lashing in Chelsea’s opening goal against Everton midway through the second half. He’s a tidy finisher and deserves to the lead the line in this week’s team.


Five-a-side TOTW: April 18th 2017

Picking an eleven is hard; picking just five is even harder.

Just over a month to go in Premier League and things are getting lively at both ends of the table. It has, however, become quite a slog to select an interesting five-a-side team every week. We’re in the home straight now so we’ll soldier on. This week Manchester United swept past Chelsea to blow the title race open. We’re being serious this time; Chelsea have reasons to be worried.

Goalkeeper – Simon Mignolet

It finally seems that Mignolet’s transition from Liverpool’s burden to ‘actually quite a good keeper’ is complete. He deserves plaudits for stopping Matt Phillips’ big chance to earn West Brom a point but it was his general command in a very tricky fixture that gets him back into our five-a-side team. Simply put, Reds fans (i.e me) no longer wince in fear every time the ball comes into the box.

The Nullifier – Ander Herrera

The Premier League’s prime pick-pocketer put in another perfectly polished performance to force Eden Hazard into anonymity in Sunday’s big fixture. After Nemanja Matic prodded the ball into Herrera’s loose arm early in the first half, the Spaniard broke and pushed a precise pass round David Luiz and into the arching run of Marcus Rashford (who duly tucked it away). He capped his performance by drilling home United’s second, albeit courtesy of a nasty deflection.

The Ball Player – Kevin De Bruyne

It seems as though everybody has forgotten about Manchester City since they tumbled out of the Champions League and lost to Chelsea. Nevertheless, it seems as though their squad are benefitting from time outside the spotlight. Sergio Aguero is inching back to his best alongside the red hot Leroy Sane, but perhaps Kevin De Bruyne’s recovery in form will be the most pleasing development. At his best he is a joy to watch. He was the puppet-master of City’s lethal counter attack against Southampton before lifting a second assist onto the head of Aguero in the closing moments.

The Runner – Xherdan Shaqiri

I’m a huge fan of Xherdan Shaqiri and perhaps only his crippling inconsistencies are stopping him from landing a move to a top club. He blasted in a cracking goal against Hull City and was instrumental in his side ending their woeful run of defeats. He’s a little man full of big moments and is still Stoke City’s most valuable player. The Potters need to overhaul their squad but the Swiss superstar is one who should be retained.

The Finisher – Marcus Rashford

Rashford’s performance against Chelsea did wonders to silence his doubters. Is the Englishman good enough to influence big games? Should he really be considered on equal footing to Zlatan Ibrahimović? Will he carve himself enough goal scoring opportunities? On Sunday’s performance the answer to all three of these questions would be ‘yes’. He beat Asmir Begovic with coolness inside the opening ten minutes and caused Luiz, Gary Cahill and Kurt Zouma plenty of problems alongside Jesse Lingard.


Mike Franchetti

Two Months To Go: Who’s Actually Happy?

For many Premier League clubs this has been a season full of miserable moments. In this era of moaning on the radio and venting on Twitter, I’m willing to bet many sets of fans will be happy to see the back of the 2017 season.

With less than ten games to go in the Premier League season, how many fans are actually happy? The shining example of happy fans – despite recently losing their undefeated home record – comes from the Stamford Bridge faithful. Chelsea collapsed inexplicably to tenth last year but have surged back to the top of the Premier League to the tune of a seven point advantage. They’ve got a manager every bit as passionate at Jurgen Klopp, more tactically shrewd than Pep Guardiola and a far better man manager than the present day Jose Mourinho. However, beneath The Blues, who’s actually had a season to be happy about?

Tottenham are on course to smash their previous points tally and should reach the elusive 80 point milestone. Despite this, fans will likely be left feeling sorry for themselves again. They’ll finish above Arsenal, but could very easily end up trophy-less and with another bout of ‘we won’t be this good next season’. After snatching third in a two horse race last year they won’t be over the moon with a distant second to Chelsea despite playing some of the best football in the league.

Whatever way you wrap it up, Manchester City fans won’t hold this season in high regard. The more sympathetic folk will focus on glimpses on Guardiola’s vision but the Spaniard’s debut season has been full of embarrassing moments. As for Liverpool – how can a team play so well against so many top teams and be so far from the top of the league? Deadly in big games, Klopp has done little to fix Liverpool’s familiar flaws against beatable opponents.

Moving down the league we reach Arsenal. Their fans are fighting eachother. Enough said.

Manchester United have had to put the Mourinho revolution on hold. The Slightly Deranged One’s tried and tested tactics haven’t been a roaring success at United. He may still drag them to fourth but it hasn’t been an easy ride.

Everton are next and the common consensus is that they’ve had a good season under a savvy new manager in Ronald Koeman. But have they really? They’ll finish higher than last year but defeats to Bournemouth, Burnley and Watford plus two Merseyside derbies and a hammering by Chelsea have confirmed their status as ‘just’ a top eight side. They’re hardly banging on the door of the top four. They’ve merely returned to where they were four years ago.

Next come West Brom who, on paper, have had a fine season. Credit to Tony Pulis for delivering everything West Brom could possibly have hoped for, but are the fans happy? You get plenty of Baggies on Talksport speaking of their uninspiring performances and lack of risk-taking football. Pulis has worked hard to get into a position of safety and security, can we see them try something else now?

Southampton have wilted badly since the League Cup final. A good season for James Ward-Prowse and the signing of Manolo Gabbiadini are scarce few high points; the transition from Ronald Koeman to Claude Puel a very obvious low. Recent form has seen a very ordinary Watford side climb to a flattering high. Staying up is an achievement of sorts but I doubt their fans will be particular enamoured with Walter Mazzarri.

With five straight wins and a Champions League quarter-final, Leicester fans will be almost as happy right now as they were last May. Let’s not be blinded though, losing Claudio Ranieri and plummeting to the relegation zone has made this a remarkably sticky campaign.

Stoke City have had somewhat of a classic Premier League campaign. An abysmal start, strong winter form and a recent dwindle see them sit twelfth in the table. Mark Hughes has become a highly divisive character and Stoke have had very little to cheer about. Below them sit Bournemouth and we may finally have found our second set of happy supporters. Bournemouth will now stay up and their Premier League dream will extend to a third season. Shipping 54 goals in the first 28 games was a cause for concern but I doubt they’ll be too many unhappy faces at the Vitality.

What do Burnley do on away days? I will never understand the home/away differential but Sean Dyche’s side have gone winless on the road despite winning ten of sixteen home games. However, with Burnley we might have found our third set of happy supporters! Assuming they stay up, it will be the first time Burnley have avoided the drop in their Premier League history.

West Ham are struggling and Slaven Bilic’s job is hanging by a thread. One of the best teams in the league last year, The Irons have endured a dismal campaign. They aren’t yet safe and neither are Crystal Palace. The Eagles will be ecstatic with their recent form and the long-awaited ‘Allardyce effect’ has finally kicked in. Nevertheless, I’m going to be cruel and say their fans won’t be happy with the 2017 season. Form under Pardew was horribly stuttered and they’ve left it far too late to do anything memorable.

Hull City fans have a handful of reasons to be happy. Marco Silva has turned the club’s form around and – to be fair to Mike Phelan – the club have punched above their dismal expectations all season. Are the fans happy? I’ll put them down as a weak yes due to recent form and renewed hope.

Hull are in a lively scrap with fellow struggles Swansea City. Even the most negative of Swansea fans wouldn’t have expected the side to be this perilously close to the drop with seven games to go. Bad decisions and Bob Bradley have made this is a season to forget.

Not only are Middlesbrough doomed for relegation but they’ve scored just 22 goals all campaign. Four wins and many miserable outings have confirmed their fans’ despair.

Sunderland? Give me a break.

Final Score: Unhappy Fans 16 – 4 Happy Fans

Mike Franchetti

Five-a-side TOTW: April 4th 2017

Picking an eleven is hard; picking just five is even harder.

Great weekend! Crystal Palace rocked up to Stamford Bridge and did the unthinkable. The Blues’ lead was cut to a measly seven points meaning Tottenham could catch them if they, erm, lose their next three games. Elsewhere, Liverpool’s undefeated streak in Merseyside derbies continued with a 3-1 victory, Arsenal fought back to draw 2-2 with Manchester City and Middlesbrough failed to score a goal for the fifth time in six games.

Goalkeeper – Wayne Hennessey

Perhaps it’s the number of substandard performances Hennessey has produced this year that makes his presence in TOTW an absolute certainty when he does eventually turn up. The whole Crystal Palace team played well – Sakho again looked first class– but the league leaders troubled Hennessey on more than one occasion. The Welshman rose to the task stopping strikes from Diego Costa, Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas once The Eagles had grabbed an early lead.

The Force – Wilfred Ndidi

After showing whispers of potential under Claudio Ranieri, Ndidi has come alive during Leicester’s upturn in form. The Nigerian gives The Foxes’ centre midfield a physical boost but, crucially, he hasn’t tried to be Ngolo Kante. Unable to offer Leicester’s back four the same level of unbelievable protection, Ndidi has made the headlines at the other end of the pitch scoring a number of memorable goals. Against Stoke City on Saturday he rattled in a superb strike, arrowing the ball into the top corner of Lee Grant’s net. He’s 20.

The Runner – Kamil Grosicki

With Leicester climbing to safety, Middlesbrough falling off a cliff and Sunderland frozen on five wins, we seem to be gearing up for a relegation battle between Hull City and Swansea. Though Swansea appear to have the upper hand more results such as Hull’s 2-1 victory over West Ham could see Marco Silva’s side pull off an unlikely escape. The talented Grosicki has only shown glimpses of form since joining from France but was a real menace on Saturday. He saw plenty of the ball and provided crosses for both of Hull’s goals. He should feature again in the midweek fixtures.

The Playmaker – Philippe Coutinho

Coutinho’s form over the past few months has been a dismal reflection of his pre-Christmas contribution. It’s no surprise this dip coincided with an injury recovery and no surprise Liverpool’s results took a turn for the worse. Fresh off the back of a fine goal for Brazil, Coutinho was back to his old tricks in Saturday’s Merseyside derby. With Lucas Leiva and Emre Can doing much of the dirty work, he was afforded the space he so loves to exploit. He gave the Everton backline a torrid time and scored the sort of curling effort he attempts nearly every match.

Free Role – Wilfried Zaha

With six goals and seven assists, Zaha is beginning to show the sort of form your mate from Crystal Palace has been telling you about for five years. There’s no denying his ability to trouble defences and Chelsea’s back three were made to work very hard in the opening half hour. Zaha netted Palace’s first before laying on Christian Benteke – who also impressed – for a quick-fire second. The Zaha-Grosicki-Coutinho combination would be a joy to watch on a five-a-side pitch.


Mike Franchetti

Were Leicester City right to sack Claudio Ranieri?

Agree to Disagree – where the argument you had at the pub last Thursday becomes a well mannered discussion.

Claudio Ranieri’s gone! The man in charge when Leicester City pulled off the biggest shock in the history of English football has been sacked less than ten months after lifting the Premier League trophy. Leicester’s form has been dreadful – but should he have been sacked?


YES

Mike Franchetti argues…

Shock horror! Tactically one-dimensional manager sacked after players and fans rapidly lose faith. Uproar! Departure follows a run of five straight Premier League defeats and six games without SCORING A GOAL. The worst decision ever! Champions of England spend £60,000,000 and plummet to relegation battle winning just five games by the end of February.

Really? Is Ranieri’s sacking the worst decision ever? Worse than Birmingham City turfing out Gary Rowett – when eighth in the table – to bring in Gianfranco Zola? Worse than Swansea City kicking out their obviously talented young manager and former captain Garry Monk? What about when Gianluca Vialli was given his marching orders after winning three cup competitions in two years?

Okay – whisper this – but I actually might not have sacked Ranieri. Why? Because I value loyalty and like to see managers given a chance to turn things round. I don’t think like a businessman and I’m certainly not a multimillionaire chairman. I long for the old days where managers could mould their clubs and create defining eras; Ferguson’s United, Wenger’s Arsenal and, erm, Allardyces’s Bolton? This is probably the first pro-sacking post I’ve written. Over the years I’ve wanted them all to stay; from Andre Villas-Boas and Martin O’Neil, to Tim Sherwood and Steve Clarke.

But Ranieri’s sacking hasn’t left me with the usual sour taste. Outside of sentiment, I don’t see too much wrong with the Italian getting axed.

Let me first find a sentence or two for the miracle of the 2016 season. I still haven’t been able to get my head round what happened. Leicester winning the Premier League was at least ten times more improbable than Liverpool overturning their deficit in Istanbul. It was absolutely bonkers. They sailed to the top of the Premier League, lost to Arsenal, dusted themselves off and then went another 12 games unbeaten. Bizarre. Bonkers. A miracle.

What follows a miracle? Another miracle? Highly unlikely. Ranieri had the near-impossible job of delivering Leicester City to a safe mid-table finish without players and fans suffering from a case of apathy. He was behind the steering wheel of the most feel-good story in recent footballing history but with no idea where to go next. Somebody had to walk into the Leicester City party, turn the music off and say ‘What the f*** do we do now’? Nice-guy Ranieri was never the man for that job.

If I’m honest, I don’t even think he was that instrumental in last year’s success. During Leicester’s string of sensational victories his face often showed the same pleasant surprise as mine. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing and neither could we.

The main argument for keeping Ranieri is that Leicester should not sack the man who has helped deliver the greatest season in their entire history. It’s a fair shout but not one that would play on the mind of the King Power International Group. By all accounts they seem like reasonable owners (at least by current standards) and, even taking into account parachute payments, they can’t afford to let their club drop to the second division.

Perhaps, in an ideal world, the club would sack Wes Morgan – and his spiced rum deal – or the aging Robert Huth. Perhaps they’d sack Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez for losing interest and returning to mediocre levels of form. But players can’t be sacked in such certain terms. The club has been loyal to the spine of their title winning team but unfortunately this loyalty can’t be extended to the man in charge.

Maybe this is the true level of Leicester City; a fair conclusion considering their struggles in the last part of 2014 (no win in thirteen). But sadly there is nothing about Ranieri’s character – or managerial history – which inspires confidence that he is the right man for this situation.

With relegation looming, many thought Leicester fans would smile and say to eachother ‘Ah well, it was all worth it’ but this was never going to be the case. Diehard football fans will never settle for prolonged periods of substandard performances. Ranieri’s sacking – much like last season’s title – was written.

 

NO

Sam Simmons argues…

We all know that football managers are sacked on a regular basis. An isolated glance of the Premier League table would indicate that the sacking of Ranieri was justifiable. There have certainly been harsher cases of managerial sackings in the not so distant past.

Looking exclusively at this season and the results of Ranieri’s Leicester team is choosing to analyse only half the story. This season is only a disaster in the context of what happened last time around.

Let’s say that Leicester had finished 16th last season. Ranieri would have been congratulated for stabilising a team that had experienced a summer of turmoil. Let’s not forget that when Claudio took over he was hardly the first choice among Leicester fans and, of course, the mandatory football ‘experts’. Many had predicted him to be the first manager sacked and the bookies had emphatically decided that the Foxes were destined for the drop. “Well done, Claudio – you did your job!” Those are the words you’d imagine that the Leicester City owner, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, would have said to his Italian manager had that particular scenario played out. Pleased that his left-field appointment had paid dividends, the Thai businessmen could be satisfied with what his manager had achieved.

Of course we all know what really happened. Ranieri’s side lost only three games, two of which were to Arsenal, and won the title by a staggering 10 points. “Well done, Claudio. That really is incredible!” Again – I am being somewhat facetious, but Mr Srivaddhanaprabha would surely have been able to realise the enormity of what his manager had achieved.

And this is why the sacking of Britain’s favourite foreign manager is so utterly ridiculous, so utterly unnecessary, and so utterly wrong!

When sacked, his side were outside of the bottom three, still in the Champions League, and still, in my opinion at least, likely to stay up. In fact, it is worth reminding those who are less familiar of Leicester’s recent history that they were sitting in a far worse position 24 months ago. The then manager, Nigel Pearson, was given the time to turn things around then.

Would the owners have sacked Ranieri had he finished 16th last season and was sat in, say, 14th place now? Absolutely not. People would still be saying that he was doing a reasonable job with the squad he had available. The owners – likely content with the progress from the previous campaign – could board their private helicopter safe in the knowledge that the team would be enjoying a fourth consecutive Premier League season.

“Well done, Claudio. You’re still doing your job to the level we expected.”

How could Ranieri not be afforded the same courtesy as Pearson was? In many ways this question is largely irrelevant. The decision has been made. But what the decision tells us sets a worrying precedent. Essentially, by making this decision the owners have said that they value Premier League survival over the success of last season. It affirms a nasty reality of the modern game – money really is everything. Clearly Srivaddhanaprabha and his son feel the cost of getting relegated is one that is too financially hard to bear.

There are other alleged reasons for Ranieri’s departure, namely regarding whether the players had lost faith in their manager. I am sorry, but I find that particularly story very hard to believe. You’re telling me that a group of players who achieved the impossible last season have suddenly lost faith in their manager?

I mean, pull the other one! And even if they had, that only reflects badly on them. If they were not professional enough to get on with their jobs even though they had reservations about the manager, then it just goes to prove that modern day footballers are just overpaid, pampered prima donnas.

I happen to disagree with this theory. For me the reality is far more simple – Leicester are where they are meant to be. They were never meant to win the league last season, so why should expectation have been so drastically different?

Naturally anything below first is a failure compared to last season – but what else were people expecting? A Manchester United like period of dominance? What Ranieri achieved last season was absolutely unprecedented. He deserved immunity. Instead of sacking him, the owners should have been building statues.

I can’t help but feel bitterly sad and disappointed about the events of the last week. Last season was so romantic, so wonderful; it really did go a long way to restoring an element of humanity in a game that increasingly seems to lack it.

Ranieri was a key figure in that. His humour, positivity and general behaviour was a stark contrast to the macho and unpleasant bravado we have seen from many of his contemporaries.

In the words of the great man. “Dilly ding. Dilly dong. Wake up!” If only the owners had woken up and realised that they were never, ever going to have it so good.


Five-a-side TOTW: February 7th 2017

Picking an eleven is hard; picking just five is even harder.

Arsenal suffered another painful defeat this week, featuring a mazy Eden Hazard goal and old boy Cesc Fabregas lobbing into an empty net. Liverpool’s poor run also continued as both sides continue to do their best to finish in fifth spot. The relegation battle intensified with wins for Hull, Swansea and Sunderland pulling a pathetic Leicester City side into real danger. Here’s another five-a-side team.

Goalkeeper – Thibaut Courtois

Finally the man with thirteen clean sheets was asked to produce some real goalkeeping. Despite Chelsea’s superior quality, Arsenal managed to keep pushing throughout the game resulting in a handful of chances. With the score at 2-0, Danny Welbeck steered a header low to Courtois’ right. The Belgian fully extended himself to make a stretched save, flicking his right hand to knock the ball to safety. The man Courtois replaced at Chelsea – Petr Cech – was in the opposite goal and there can no longer be any doubt over who the sharper shot-stopper is.

The Stopper – Andrea Ranocchia

It’s often said that Italians have mastered the art of defending but not many mentioned Andrea Ranocchia in the same breath as Bergomi, Cannavaro or Chiellini during his time at Inter Milan. Whilst some Nerazzurri fans weren’t too keen on Ranocchia, I was shocked to see the Premier League’s biggest strugglers attract a centre-half with 21 Italy caps. He was excellent alongside Harry McGuire as the two repelled Liverpool’s best attacks. In only his second appearance, Ranocchia also showed his class by weighting a long ball to Oumar Niasse for Hull’s second goal. Against all odds, Marco Silva and his mixed bag of signings could steer Hull City to Premier League survival.

The Middleman – Didier Ndong

After 45 minutes at Selhurst Park, Sunderland were trouncing Crystal Palace 0-4. It was the most surprising half of football since Leicester put three past Manchester City. The Wearsiders had been in awful form and £13 million record signing Didier Ndong was looking like a careless piece of business. However, Sunderland’s many slumps have hardly been the Gabon international’s fault and David Moyes has kept faith with the 22 year-old. He made major steps forward on Saturday with the sort of dominant and energetic performance they so often lack. Sunderland fans have had plenty of false dawns this season and will need more performances like Saturday’s in order to stay up. Ndong scored the second goal of the match with a fine strike from the edge of the area. It’s fair to say Twitter’s response to his performance was a little over the top…

The Talisman – Gylfi Sigurðsson

Oh look at that – I’ve just picked Gylfi Sigurðsson over Eden Hazard. The Icelander returns for another TOTW appearance. Paul Clement’s much improved Swansea City side visited Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City on Sunday and were always going to be up against it in terms of possession. However, after 80 minutes the home side were just 1-0 up and Sigurðsson took centre stage. He drifted into a dangerous area and his fine 20-yard strike beat Willy Caballero. City’s new golden boy Gabriel Jesus poked home a very late winner but Swansea put in a performance unrecognisable from their dire early season form. Sigurðsson has been part of anything good the club has done this season and has now collected eight goals and seven assists. Only four players have created more Premier League goals and of those only Alexis Sanchez has scored more.

The Goal Machine – Romelu Lukaku

Why isn’t Lukaku the best centre forward in the world? He’s always been an impressive athlete but he’s currently displaying an increased confidence as Everton’s star player. His finishing has been excellent recently to the point where he’s almost looked arrogant. Against Bournemouth on Saturday he bagged four goals to take him to the top of the Premier League goalscoring charts. Bournemouth’s defence was utterly terrible at times but that doesn’t take away from the fact Lukaku delivered a completely accomplished performance. The big man curled, dinked and volleyed his way to a superb hatrick. He seems happy at the moment suggesting he has shelved urgent plans for a big money move to United/Chelsea/PSG. That will all change if he wins the golden boot and Everton finish sixth.


Mike Franchetti

One Daniel Sturridge, there’s only one Daniel Sturridge…

Why doesn’t Daniel Sturridge have a song!?

Daniel Sturridge has scored 58 goals for Liverpool; 21 in a single Premier League season, nine in eight straight games, four against Everton, three against United and a splendid opener in a European final. You can throw in an International winner against Wales for good measure. And he doesn’t have one song. Not even a song that only four people know the words to. Not even a song that’s actually another player’s song but with his name substituted in. Sure, I haven’t been at every single Daniel Sturridge match – but can anybody enlighten me?

This singsong analysis is, admittedly, not an exact science. Olivier Giroud has a fantastic song which frequently rips round the Emirates whilst the more acclaimed Alexis Sanchez suffers from a collective lack of creativity. Nobody’s to blame for the fact that ‘Gir-Oud’ sounds way more like ‘Hey Jude’ than ‘San-Chez’ ever will. Some people just catch a lucky break.

West Ham squeezed Payet’s name neatly into Billy Ray Cyrus’ ‘Achy-Breaky Heart’ but the Frenchman has turned his back on the club and ‘Lanzini’ will have too many syllables to function as a realistic replacement.

The ‘Sturridge’ surname isn’t the easiest to work with but this is Liverpool we’re talking about. There is special table in a pub opposite Anfield rumoured to be reserved for a mysterious group who claim writing credits to all of the Kop’s favourite chants. This is a club who briefly sang Lucas Levia’s name to the tune of John Paul Young’s ‘Love is in the Air’ before settling on a more familiar tune (adopted shamelessly from a Crystal Palace chant/any number of other clubs).

At the start of this campaign Daniel Sturridge had a Premier League goals-per-game ratio of 0.623; strangely similar to Luis Suarez (0.627) and Liverpool’s table topper Fernando Torres (0.637). However, his goals-per-minute ratio would blow the other two away. The Englishman has been on and off the bench more than he’ll care to remember mainly due to injuries but also a little lack of manager love.

He’s fit now but is arguably Jurgen Klopp’s third choice striker. Sadly, there’s little justification for him currently being in the Liverpool side. If you were tasked with designing a striker Klopp wouldn’t like you’d come up with something a lot like Daniel Sturridge; he doesn’t pressure the full width of the pitch, he goes for the spectacular far too frequently and he’s often stationary whilst planning his next move.

But this isn’t a Klopp issue. This is a more wide-spread issue that stems from the fact people just don’t love Daniel Sturridge. At Chelsea he was seen as a problem player, at Liverpool’s he’s seen as an individualist. It’s just unfortunate that Sturridge is a million miles away from the archetypal Kopite. Most of Anfield just can’t connect with the hip-hop producing, Instagram-loving, openly Christian striker. His celebratory dance remains popular but they’ll be a few eyes rolling these days.

Academy graduates receive a wealth of support from the Kop. Birmingham-born, ex-City, ex-Chelsea Sturridge can’t fall back on this. A second option is to ‘run your heart out, son’ the sole reason Dirk Kuyt was able to get over with the fans during his time at Anfield. The Dutchman gave 110% every match with the sort of performances that would make James Milner look lazy.

At the last few Liverpool games I’ve attended there’s been a loud (but ugly) Divock Origi song. It’s nothing special – a simple ‘Divock Origi, clap-clap, clap-clap-clap’. The young Belgian has done okay for the Reds but when did he jump up the queue? His song started during a touchline warm-up and continued for a solid five minutes. Away at Southampton last year I witnessed some lunatic start a Jordan Ibe chant. I still don’t know what the tune was and I’m not sure he did; it was strangely impressive. Nevertheless, these were sloppy efforts by Liverpool. What happened to the genius of the Buddy Holly inspired Maxi Rodriguez song?

Sturridge has a reputation of somebody who sulks but he’s behaved a lot better than some Premier League undesirables these past few transfer windows. I can’t recall him whinging too much about his lack of game time or demotion to the EFL cup side. He’ll likely leave Anfield soon – but can we at least sing him out the door? I don’t think Liverpool will ever top the ‘Johnny Comes Marching Home Again’ Fernando Torres song but surely that special table of musical minds can come up with something?


Mike Franchetti – a Liverpool fan

Five-a-side TOTW: January 24th 2017

Picking an eleven is hard; picking just five is even harder.

Chelsea and Arsenal were the only two sides from the top six to win last weekend with Liverpool’s unbeaten Anfield streak coming to a crashing end against Swansea. It was also the week Wayne Rooney finally broke Sir Bobby Charlton’s Manchester United goalscoring record. I’m not going to lie; this week’s team is pretty strange.

Goalkeeper – Tom Heaton

Tom Heaton wins the ‘Lee Grant, Tom Heaton or Jordan Pickford’ award this week as our struggles to highlight genuinely good goalkeeping continues. Hugo Lloris was good for a while before making two pretty horrendous mistakes against Manchester City, whilst Wayne Hennessey had a reasonable game in the Crystal Palace goal until losing his clean sheet in the dying moments. What more can we say about Heaton? When Burnley visited the Emirates we all knew he would be in for a busy game and he continued to look like a future England goalkeeper. He’s one of the best in the Premier League right now and I’d swap him for either of Liverpool’s keepers. He may be annoyed he couldn’t stop Alexis Sanchez’s dinked penalty.

The Anchor – Darren Fletcher

Two weeks ago we had Michael Carrick, last week Gareth Barry and this week Darren Fletcher; good times for experienced midfielders who probably shouldn’t be playing as well as they are. Fletcher performs a similar role to his more naturally-gifted contemporaries, offering West Brom a wealth of experience in the middle of the park. He helped his side keep a clean sheet against Sunderland on Saturday but that’s not really why he’s made our team. With the ball dropping down from Gareth McAuley’s flicked header, Fletcher channelled his inner-Ronaldo before chesting the ball and hooking it exquisitely over his shoulder into the far corner. Cracking goal.

The Playmaker – Tom Carroll

It’s not hard to pick holes in Liverpool’s defence – but someone still has to do it. In Swansea’s shock 2-3 victory at Anfield on Saturday that man was Tom Carroll. On his debut for Swansea he displayed the sort of confidence his teammates have been lacking throughout their torrid run. Paul Clement has plenty of work to do defensively but will be pleased to have Carroll share playmaking responsibilities with Gylfi Sigurdsson. Swansea had just 26% of the ball and Carroll’s ventures into the Liverpool half gave his teammates a crucial breather. Warning signs were apparent when he struck the post in the first half and his weighted cross to Fernando Llorente helped put the Swans 2-0 up. Arguably his most vital contribution came late in the game. His direct running once again caused the Liverpool defence to panic and a ricochet off Ragnar Klaven lead to Sigurdsson’s surprise winner.

The Big Man – Andy Carroll

From one Carroll to another, everyone’s favourite £35 million Geordie has been in cracking form for West Ham. Last week he scored the goal of the season (yep – it will be) and this week he looked every bit the predator bagging two goals away at Middlesbrough. By all accounts Andy Carroll is a good guy and most of the footballing world will want him to stay fit for the rest of the season. If he does, he could creep towards 15 Premier League goals and re-establish himself as the best ‘big man’ in the country. It’s too easy to tie Dimitri Payet’s sulk to West Ham’s upturn in form, but you can imagine Carroll being one of the most outspoken in the dressing room and it does look to have brought the rest of the group closer together. He might struggle on a five-a-side pitch but he’d be great entertainment.

The Talisman – Wayne Rooney

Over the last few months it looked as though Wayne Rooney’s record-breaking 250th goal would be a scrappy jab, flick or poke against the likes of Reading, Wigan or FC Copenhagen. It looked like a burden that Rooney was itching to get out of the way. It even crossed my mind that the 250th goal would be accompanied by a peaceful transfer request and a move to the MLS (he doesn’t strike me as a China-sorta-guy). It would have been a shame for it to end this way; Rooney has had a brilliant career and has grown into a remarkably selfless footballer. It was therefore fantastic that the record-breaking goal was actually a stunning 94th minute free kick to earn Manchester United a dramatic point away to Stoke. It was a near-perfect moment. United were unbeaten for the best part of three months and their divisive club captain ensured the run would continue. He celebrated like a man who had just got his team out of trouble rather than one who had broken the goal-scoring record at the biggest club in England. I would love him on my five-a-side team and I hope he extends the record by at least 10 more goals.


Mike Franchetti

A Conversation That Never Took Place: Pep Guardiola

*DISCLAIMER – This is not a real story.* 

I like to imagine that at some point shortly after his appointment at Manchester City Pep Guardiola was shown a map of the UK and some of the lesser-known Premier League homes were pointed out…

A clued-up Manchester City assistant decides to start by introducing Staffordshire and Stoke City; a location Guardiola would be paying a visit to at the end of August.

‘Forget what you have heard about Stoke, Pep. They are a different club these days. We will have too much class for them’.

The entirely fictitious conversation moves south to Wales and Swansea City.

‘Swansea poses little threat to us, Pep. We shall easily defeat them and their manager will be sacked. We will force them into hiring a peculiar American replacement.’

Guardiola is pleased with what he is hearing. ‘Where next?’ he smiles.

‘To North London’ his assistant explains. ‘But not to Arsenal. It is Tottenham we should fear this season. It is here we will lose our 100% record, Pep. They will not fear the way we play’.

‘We’ll see’ Guardiola grunts.

Moving a short distance down the map the pair reach Selhurst Park.

‘Our squad will be low on confidence here, Pep. It may be a good idea to recall Yaya’

Guardiola laughs. ‘We won’t be needing him this year. Where else are we visiting?’

‘Burnley’ the would-be assistant reveals. ‘Not too far from our home ground’.

‘Who?’ spurts the new City manager. ‘I haven’t heard of any of these players. We will win easily, for sure. And if they put up a fight we can always blame the ref. Tell me, when do we visit the Premier League Champions?’

The assistant steadies himself. ‘Leicester will pose a counter-attacking threat, Pep…’

‘Nonsense! We will restore order to this division. I may not even start two recognised centre-halves. John can do a perfectly good job by himself. Besides, we have Claudio in goal should they manage a shot on target’

The assistant struggles to stop himself from laughing.

‘Sorry Pep, maybe you’re right. We will also visit Anfield before New Year. I expect Jurgen will have improved his side this year…’

‘No, no. Don’t be silly – have you seen their defence? We shall out-score them. We have Sergio. They have Dejan Lovren. What about their neighbours?’

The assistant takes a deep breath.

‘It’s at Everton where every fault you’ve ignored, dismissed or forgotten about over the first five months of the season will come together in one 90-minute period. We’ll have all of the ball and do nothing with it. We won’t deal with their direct approach and our defenders will be pressured into serious mistakes. Our team will lack focus and we won’t be able to ignore our unbalanced squad any longer. A debuting teenager will come on as a substitute and nutmeg Claudio Bravo. It will be one of the worst results in your managerial career’

Guardiola had left the room.

‘What do you think of this roll neck?’